Impact of the Protestant Reformation on the Study of History

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  • 0:04 More Than a Religious…
  • 1:58 Literacy and Skepticism
  • 3:29 Humanism and Deism
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll learn about the impact of the Protestant Reformation on the discipline of history. We'll explore how this social, political, and economic revolution led to increased literacy, a renewed appreciation for education, and new ways of thinking about history.

More Than a Religious Revolution

On October 31, 2017, people came from all over the world to Wittenberg, Germany, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was a religious, social, economic, and political revolution that was sparked when a Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of his local church.

Luther believed the Catholic Church was corrupt, and he sought to reform it. His 95 Theses was basically a list of 95 complaints against the Catholic Church. See, Luther believed that salvation was obtained through God's grace, and not through doing the ''works'' the church demanded; he also held that the Bible—and not the church—was the ultimate religious authority.

Luther's 95 Theses weakened the authority of the Catholic Church and laid the intellectual framework for modernism as we know it. The movable type printing press, invented some 80 years earlier, allowed Luther's 95 Theses to spread like wildfire. In towns and villages all over Germany, ordinary people were reading Luther's ''radical'' charges against the church.

Many people think of the Protestant Reformation as only a religious revolution. In reality, it was so much more. Yes, its beginning was religious in nature, but the Reformation progressed to transcend religion. So why is the Protestant Reformation a big deal? It was a social, political, and economic revolution in the truest sense. It laid the intellectual framework upon which the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment were built. The Protestant Reformation led to modern democracy, skepticism, capitalism, individualism, civil rights, and many of the modern values we cherish today.

The Protestant Reformation impacted nearly every academic discipline, notably the social sciences like economics, philosophy, and history. In this lesson, we'll learn about how the Protestant Reformation impacted the study of history. Let's get our learning on!

Literacy and Skepticism

Let's start by examining literacy because literacy is a foundation for acquiring knowledge. Illiteracy was common throughout the Middle Ages, especially among the lower classes. The Catholic Church typically printed the Bible only in Latin, which was a language that most common people did not know. The masses could not read the Bible for themselves; they placed their trust that what the Pope or their priest told them was true.

Martin Luther, however, translated the Bible into German, the vernacular, or the language of the common people. Now ordinary people could read the Bible for themselves. Increasingly, the Bible became interpreted in new ways. Protestant theology emphasized marriage and family, the importance of hard work done for God's glory, and the value of education. Followers of Luther and the Protestant reformers that came after him in the 16th and 17th centuries, placed a strong emphasis on literacy. As a result of the Reformation, literacy increased throughout Europe, particularly among the common people.

With literacy came a newfound sense of skepticism: No longer would the masses blindly hold to what their priests told them; literacy meant that people could discover things for themselves... and not just ''spiritual'' things. People increasingly began to take an interest in secular, academic things. Just one of those things was history.

Increasingly, people began focusing their attention on the history of ancient Greece and Rome. This trend was ultimately embodied in what we call the Renaissance, which took place between the 14th to 17th centuries and was a period of renewed interest in Greek and Roman art, history, and culture.

Humanism and Deism

Ironically, the Reformation led to greater secularization. Value began to be placed not only on 'spiritual themes, but also on earthly, secular themes. For centuries, medieval universities had emphasized Christian doctrine; academic disciplines were understood within the context of theology.

However, as the Reformation progressed, history (and other disciplines) became understood for its own sake. This development is closely tied with the humanism of the Renaissance. Renaissance humanism emphasized classical Greek and Roman culture, the importance of being a well-rounded human being, and the supreme value of education.

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